Judge Patrick Bromley experienced a Grinch-like melting of his resistance to WB shows. Next you know, he'll be watching (and loving) Everwood.
Our reviews of Gilmore Girls: The Complete Second Season (published February 2nd, 2005), Gilmore Girls: The Complete Fourth Season (published November 9th, 2005), Gilmore Girls: The Complete Fifth Season (published December 13th, 2005), Gilmore Girls: The Complete Sixth Season (published September 25th, 2006), Gilmore Girls: The Complete Seventh Season (published December 19th, 2007), and Gilmore Girls: The Complete Series (published November 28th, 2007) are also available.
Like mother, like daughter.
I have never seen an episode of Gilmore Girls, nor am I at all familiar with the (arguably limited) body of work of the show's stars. Come to think of it, I don't believe I've seen a single show on the WB since the first season of Dawson's Creek (you know, before Cousin Arthur showed up). I came into this first season of Gilmore Girls more a cynic than a skeptic (I'd rather doubt something than give the benefit of)—it's rare that something can penetrate the cold, cold blackness of my heart. When something does, it usually comes from a place neither I nor any rational organism would expect, like Meet Joe Black. So my hopes for a WB family comedy-drama were low.
I'll admit I was wrong.
Facts of the Case
The Gilmore Girls are mom Lorelai (Lauren Graham, Sweet November, Bad Santa) and daughter Rory (the unfortunately named Alexis Bledel, Tuck Everlasting), who live in Stars Hollow, Connecticut. As the series begins, Rory has been accepted into a prestigious private school—the first step on her path to Harvard—and Lorelai, who runs the town's Independence Inn, has concerns about being able to pay the tuition. She eventually has no choice but to turn to her wealthy socialite parents (Kelly Bishop, Private Parts, and Edward Herrmann, The Lost Boys, Intolerable Cruelty), from whom she has been estranged since running away at 16 while pregnant with Rory. Emily, Lorelai's mother, agrees to pay for Rory's education under one condition—that both Gilmore girls come over every Friday night for dinner so that she can finally get to know her granddaughter. Lorelai reluctantly agrees, and the deal is struck.
This is the basic setup for the season, and the premise from which the show's subsequent events springboard. As Lorelai tries to re-establish a connection with her parents after many years, Rory is getting to know them for the first time and finding that, for better or worse, her grandparents can expose her to new experiences (golf, for one). Another experience she's having for the first time (this one without the help of her grandparents) is a budding romance with Dean (Jared Padalecki, New York Minute), a new boy from Chicago. At the same time, Rory is finding difficulty acclimating at her new school—the classes move much quicker, the grading is much tougher, and the other students are unfriendly to any (potentially threatening) outsiders. Things aren't made any easier when Lorelai begins a relationship with Rory's attractive teacher (Scott Cohen, Kissing Jessica Stein), which may or may not prove to be disastrous for all parties involved. While Lorelai tries to get a handle on that sticky romance, she's also coming to grips with her on-again / off-again flirtation with Luke (Scott Patterson, Little Big League, a hunkier Jason Lee), the owner of the diner the girls have made a second home.
My initial objections to Gilmore Girls were, by my own recognition, fairly petty, and more likely the result of personal resistance than a lack of quality on the show's part. Though some of the character quirks and speech patterns do require some getting used to, I was being slightly reactionary when making mental notes of my "issues" with the show; though some were legitimate, most were erased by around mid-season. I just had to give myself over to the WB goodness.
At first, it was just little things that irked me. Like the Carole King theme song—it sets the wrong tone, sounding more Golden Girls than Gilmore Girls. I found myself skipping it in every episode. Or the fact that the supporting cast of locals were not only two shades too colorful and quirky, but one-dimensional as well: Sookie, the cook at the Inn, is bubbly; Luke is grouchy; Michel, the concierge, is a snob, and so on. The supporting cast is introduced as such single-note cartoons that by the second episode, all of their interactions with both Lorelai and Rory became predictable—there is too little room to maneuver.
I was also having a problem with the show's central relationship. It seemed to be trying a tad too hard to paint the girls as "best friends," creating a real Oscar/Felix dynamic (at one point the characters even call attention to it) by writing Lorelai as slightly immature and Rory as wise beyond her years. By making Rory so intelligent and so mature, however, the show relieves Lorelai (and itself) of carrying much maternal responsibility. I recognize that this is a conscious choice on the part of the series' creators—by making the two so close in age (Lorelai is 32, Rory is 16), they intended to cultivate a relationship that was less mother/daughter than it is sister/sister. I guess I have to ask, why not just make a show about two sisters? Perhaps because that is not the relationship the creators were interested in exploring; that's fine, but they don't seem all that interested in exploring this relationship either—at least, not at first.
And then a strange thing happened. My stronghold of cuddly WB resistance began to melt away. Though the dialogue is, at times, too in love with its own wit—everyone has a snappy comeback and has to make their point as indirectly and with as many references as possible—it occurred to me that I enjoyed listening to these people speak. Compared to the monosyllabic back-and-forth of most network television, Gilmore Girls populates its world with intelligent characters who speak with cleverness and wisdom. Because every character on the show is smart, the viewers' intelligence is never insulted; on the contrary—like The Simpsons, Gilmore Girls rewards you for being smart, too.
Not only is the show intellectually satisfying, but it's deeply emotionally satisfying also. A given moment can be really sweet, but within seconds someone will crack a joke to insure that it doesn't become overly sentimental. Watching Rory, a girl who has accepted and defeated every challenge in her life to this point, fall in love and experience heartbreak for the first time is one of the best depictions of adolescence I've seen in a long time—I was reminded of The Wonder Years, minus the nostalgia. Rory is naïve but not stupid—young enough to be wide-eyed, but too smart to leave herself totally unguarded. That actually turns out to be the best way to describe the series as a whole: it's cynical, but optimistic.
Taking its cue from the best series television, Gilmore Girls wisely utilizes the entire twenty-one episode span of the season to tell its story. Every episode assumes you've seen the ones that preceded it (and, just in case you haven't, some episodes are prefaced by a short "Previously on…" montage to refresh you on background info pertinent to the upcoming show), with the characters making both significant and throwaway references to prior events and conversations. Though that may seem minor, the result is subtle and effective—it creates a genuine sense of history for the characters, and allows the viewers to participate in their growth. It also lets the characters speak in a way much closer to the way we do in life, referencing the past in even the smallest way while discussing the present. It fleshes out the world these people live in.
By using the season-long format to its advantage, the show is also able to take its time in developing its characters and story. It has room to breathe—there is never the feeling of rushing forward with exposition in the interest of "wrapping things up." We are allowed to become familiar with the characters and see them establish relationships with one another before any real conflict is introduced into the show (around episode ten, when Lorelai's father is rushed to the emergency room). There is an understanding on the part of the show's creative team that this is the only way we will care about what happens to these characters; by this point, we know them and like them—we're invested.
The two lead performances, by Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel, are the foundation of the show's success. Graham's Lorelai is flawed in the best possible way, in that she is aware of her idiosyncrasies and embraces them to comic effect. She's a woman who would rather make a joke than confront a problem head on, but rather than just delivering a series of wisecracks, Graham allows us to see the woman beneath the defense mechanism. And though she approaches the role as something of Rory's funny sidekick, when the time comes for seriousness she's effortlessly able to shift into dramatic mode as well. Despite their relationship's emphasis on friendship over motherhood, we absolutely buy her as this girl's mother when it counts. She's a great character, and it's a great performance.
Bledel, as Rory, looks eerily like a combination of Heather Graham and Zooey Deschanel—lucky for us, she gets her acting chops from the latter. She has the same kind of deadpan wit as Deschanel, and the same knack for approaching each line in an unexpected way but selling it better than it probably deserves. She avoids the traps most young actors—especially those on TV—fall into, making sure there is a distinction between themselves and their characters and thereby becoming too distanced from the material; we can always catch them acting (I'm thinking of you, Katie Holmes). Bledel effortlessly inhabits Rory Gilmore; for a character as mature and intelligent as Rory is written to be, she's the perfect choice. My only concern is that her performance style is so internalized and understated that it won't translate to the inevitable big-screen career she'll one day pursue (she's already appeared in 2002's Tuck Everlasting, and has several more films on the horizon). It would be a shame—as much as I enjoyed this character and her performance of it, I would like to see her break out.
Warner Bros. presents the first season of Gilmore Girls in a pretty straightforward but extremely competent package. All 21 episodes (why not 22, I'm not sure) are presented in full frame, and though the picture is a little soft, the deep autumnal colors are extremely warm. The audio track is passable, with the show's theme coming out a little too loudly—otherwise, it's a satisfying mix.
There are only a handful of special features, all of which can be found on the sixth disc (despite the fact that the menus for all five other discs carry a "Special Features" option, which directs you to Disc Six). In addition to a short behind-the-scenes doc and a couple of deleted scenes, there is a short montage of Gilmore-isms, which provides a succinct version of the show's reference-laden dialogue. There is also a repeat inclusion of one episode, "Rory's Dance," presented a second time with pop-up facts and anecdotes. While the extras may prove to be nice for the show's most rabid fans, I found them to be mostly forgettable—it's the show itself that sells this collection.
What can I say? Gilmore Girls completely won me over. Despite any reservations I may have had, I'd be hard pressed to find another network show that succeeds as well in striking just the right balance of comedy and drama. It's a smart, funny, literate show with hugely appealing performances—the perfect show for the optimistic cynic.
Gilmore Girls is guilty only of conspiracy to commit excessive cleverness, but all charges are dropped in lieu of excellence. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Featurette: Gilmore Girls Beginnings
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